TAMPA - The biggest, most diverse and technologically connected generation in American history cares little for political parties, labels or promises they know won’t be kept.
These Millennials do care about education, health care, the environment and reducing the national debt. Above all, they value honesty.
The generation born between 1981 and 2003 will make up one-fourth of all voters in November, predict researchers who study them — a surge of up to 10 million more young voters than the 20-plus million Millennials who voted in 2008.
With their growing numbers, the priorities and political views of Millennials can’t be ignored.
What this generation is expressing on a national level is confirmed locally in more than 200 essays submitted by the top-performing high school seniors in Hillsborough County, part of The Tampa Tribune’s annual R. F. “Red” Pittman college scholarship competition.
This year, the graduating seniors were asked what would inspire their vote for president in November. Few scholars mentioned a candidate or political affiliation.
“I have no party affiliation because I didn’t want my vote to be persuaded simply because of loyalty,” wrote Hava Goldstein, a Steinbrenner High scholar. Joseph Wolf from Wharton High noted, “A candidate who is party line agnostic would appeal to millions of voters tired of the same old political banter.”
A few were more blunt. “I believe that most politicians are liars and only say what we want to hear just to earn our vote,” wrote Adam Taouil from East Bay High.
What matters, most of the top scholars said, are personal qualities and a few key issues.
The trend toward more independent thinking may be viewed as a positive shift, said Robert P. Jones, who holds a Ph.D. in religion and is CEO and founder of the Public Research Institute in Washington, D.C.
“The fact that Millennials generally identify as politically independents and moderates and eschew political labels in favor of thinking things through for themselves is a good thing for the country and for democracy,” Jones said.
Whichever way they vote, their impact will be great. In 2008, Millennials supported Democrat Barack Obama 2 to 1 over Republican John McCain. Older voters were almost split evenly.
Courting the Millennials’ vote will be a challenge.
“They generally don’t like labels,” said Jones, whose institute surveyed more than 2,000 Millennials 18 to 24 in March for the “A Generation in Transition” survey, in cooperation with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.
The survey showed 45 percent identify as Independent, 33 percent as Democrat and 23 percent as Republican.
About 72 percent favor the proposed “Buffett Rule” to increase the tax rate on Americans earning more than $1 million a year, 54 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 59 percent favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.
“They are a generation of young adults who are kind of sick of knee-jerk reactions to litmus test social issues,” Jones said. “That really is a difference. They want to think it through for themselves.”
The March survey also verified the already documented trend of Millennials’ move away from formal religious affiliations.
“When we heard comments, the biggest theme showing up was an ambivalence about Christianity,” Jones said. “They believe that churches are good with principles such as love for other people, but the partisan politics of conservative Christian activism is generally a real turn-off for the younger generation. They are very uncomfortable with it.”
Millennials prefer to work together to solve problems and seek common ground, said Morley Winograd, co-author with Michael D. Hais of “Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America,” published in September 2011.
“They don’t enjoy us-versus-them confrontations,” Winograd said. “They look for win-win solutions.”
Among the Tribune Scholars, essays showed that money for college is an almost universal priority.
Jeremy Minaya is one of four students who won $1,000 scholarships through the Tribune Scholars program. He is counting on academic scholarships to help him pay for tuition at the University of Florida and trying to avoid loans.
Still, he knows he may need them to reach his goal of medical school. American born, of Dominican heritage and a Spanish speaker, Minaya wants to work in emergency rooms and spend summers aiding people in third-world countries.
Broader money questions rate as Minaya’s top concern in the presidential race.
“Right now the economy comes first,” he said.
Two of the other scholarship winners are also from Plant City High: Addison Killebrew, who plans to study electrical engineering at the University of Florida, and Parthik Patel, headed for the University of Miami to study biochemistry and eventually medicine.
Killebrew is concerned about the economy and likes “people going back to home-grown values,” although he says he doesn’t care much for politics. Driving Patel’s vote in November will be health care: “Everyone should have it.”
The fourth scholarship winner, Kendall MacDonald, became more concerned with money for college after being accepted to the University of Pennsylvania’s nursing school. She expects to take out loans but considers them a “great investment.”
Health care concerns have become paramount for scholars whose families lost medical insurance when their parents lost jobs or couldn’t get insurance.
“I want to know the candidate I am choosing has a plan or goals for helping our Healthcare system so I won’t have to be deprived of the medical care that I need to keep myself alive,” wrote Love Wooten, a top scholar at Chamberlain High who plans to attend Florida State University on scholarships, grants and loans.
Her juvenile diabetes medication costs $400 a month, and it’s not covered by insurance.
“Yes, there are important financial discussions about creating jobs for the future and making sure that we, the future generations, don’t have to live in poverty, but if I can’t get the medical assistance and attention that I need, I won’t have a future at all,” Wooten wrote.
Equality and the gap between wealthy and ordinary citizens was mentioned in a number of essays. Concern about the disparity shows up in surveys of Millennials, as well as older voters.
In fact, in Jones’ “Generation of Transition” survey, 69 percent of Millennials agreed the government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor, compared with 67 percent among the general population.
Nearly all of Hillsborough’s top scholars said in their essays they will be voting. Most will be 18 on Election Day, Nov. 6, although a few won’t be eligible because they are not U.S. citizens.
Winograd and Hais, who still study Millennials after producing two books on their research, stand by their predictions that this group will become much more involved closer to the election.
Without a Democratic primary this time, there is no way to compare today’s interest with the interest shown at this time in 2008. Another factor this year: More than a dozen states, including Florida, are making it more difficult for first-time voters to register by requiring photo identification or proof of citizenship and reducing the number of days and hours of voting.
Jones said it is too early for him to predict turnout, but he plans to re-interview the same Millennials from his survey again this summer. Hais said his statistics show as many as 10 million more young voters at the polls.
Winograd agrees: “We think they will, in fact, turn out.”